Posts Tagged ‘values’

The Connection Between Inspiration and Empowerment

February 20, 2009

Acting on dreams and inspiration is not just about honoring our uniqueness and vision for our lives.  On the most basic level, it feels good.  Think of the times you finally get around to that list of household chores.  Or how much you enjoyed writing a card to a friend, even if it is hard to shut off the TV.  The activity itself is enjoyable, the process feels good, or the sense of accomplishment is satisfying.  It engages the three components of happiness that positive psychologists talk about – positive emotion (enjoyable), engagement (getting into the flow), meaning (doing something with a larger purpose beyond personal fulfillment).

Beyond increasing happiness, acting on dreams spills over into the rest of life in other ways.  The courage and initiative it takes to explore a new hobby or tackle a project are important in so many areas.  These are the same skills as it takes to start up a conversation with the cute girl next to you at the supermarket or to make a career change.  In job-seeking parlance that’s called “transferable skills.”  The process of starting up a new project builds other transferables like persistence, diligence, self-discipline, creativity, and the confidence to tackle new and unfamiliar tasks.  And these are important in all areas of life, not just the fifteen minutes or half an hour set aside each day for personal activities.

In public health parlance this is called “empowerment,” or possession of a sense of control over life.  Empowerment is not innate but developed through life.  That crucial step – knowing that options exist, feeling that there is something I can do about the situation – is the difference between feeling trapped and searching for a way out.  It is the difference between feeling hopeless and finding hope.  And that has a huge impact in how we react to situations, both tiny crises and major life changes.

This is not easy to develop.  Initiative does not pop up overnight, and from the time we are young we are not given many opportunities to develop a sense of empowerment.  First in school then in work, we are always acting on someone else’s agenda.  Empowerment can, however, be cultivated in successively larger projects.  The first time is always the hardest, so it makes sense to start small and gradually build up.  Pick something out of personal interest.  It is far better to take these steps when the stakes are lower and the timeline is fluid, than when the stakes are high and time is limited.

In that regard, taking one step towards something you’ve always wanted to try, like signing up for an adult education class or becoming active in a church committee, is an easy, fun and non-threatening way to develop empowerment and the skills to take control over life situations.  Best of all, it coincides with your personal interests and values.  And who knows?  It might lead to new opportunities in your personal or professional life.  The blogosphere is filled with stories of men and women who started documenting their hobbies and developed them into a full-fledged career, or who met likeminded people through the Internet and created all sorts of interesting, creative, unusual and powerful new projects.

So just start.  Pick something.  Dip your toe in the waters.  Run with it.


Inspiration Boards

February 8, 2009

Inspiration sparks new ideas and keeps us going through tough times.  Any endeavor that is challenging – weight loss, a job search, a creative endeavor – benefits from constant inspiration to spark new ideas or encourage us to work through the task at hand.  Daily inspiration challenges are one way to generate constant inspiration.  Visual inspiration reminders is another way, particularly if they are integrated into the spaces in our life where we are most likely to need inspiration to keep us going.  The still life I created is one example of this.

Another format I really like is an inspiration board.  A simple board hung on the wall, it is fast and convenient way to create a display of inspirational objects and ideas.  Pushpin boards are cheap and make it easy to add in new items, but be creative!  I’ve seen metal wires with slips of paper attached by clothespins, or a narrow shelf above a desk lined with a few well-chosen objects.  The idea is to keep inspiration visible and keep it close.

What goes on the board is completely up to you.  A dream vacation spot, quotes or phrases, a list of restaurants to try, that couch you’re saving up for, a striking color combination to work into a new design.  Change it up.  Keep it fresh.  Most of all, keep looking for inspiration.

Inspiration Challenge 8: If money was no object …

Take out a piece of paper.  Across the top, write the phrase “If money was no object …”  Now complete that phrase in the phrase below.  What would you do, where would you go?  Would your days be different from how they are now?  How?  How would you really spend your time if you didn’t have to work for a living?

Inspiration Challenge 2: When Strangers Meet

February 3, 2009

I can hear it now.  “When strangers meet,” you mumble, staring at the bottom of the last post.  “What does that mean???”

“When strangers meet” is the idea of marrying disparate ideas or fields to create a new, unexpected product.  I chose this as one of 28 inspirational challenges because many of the best new ideas come from the interface of established fields.

Yesterday as I was pondering how to take up this challenge, it occurred to me that many of my ideas come from layering ideas on top of each other.  Note:

1.    Writing + wellness + developing courage to put myself out there = creation of this blog.
2.    Photography + staying in touch with friends = beyond :: boston.
3.    Calvin and Hobbes + crafting + spending time with friends + school = Make Your Own Lucky Rocketship Underpants Party.  The idea is to make “lucky talisman” underwear to give us an edge against finals.  Admittedly I haven’t tried this one yet, but a couple people have asked me when I’m throwing this party so I’m hoping to do it later this month.

It seems I’ve been doing this unconsciously already, but I wanted to see what would happen if I formally sat down and crossed my current interests.  What new combinations might pop up?

This activity took me about 30 minutes of brainstorming.  I could’ve gone on, but I wanted to see what ideas jumped out immediately.  It turns out I already do a number of these, like crafting + environment = make reusable grocery bags and cloth napkins.  But I also circled new ideas I’d like to tackle in the near future.  There’s even a couple that pertain to this month.

Create things to remind you of your goals and dreams.
Friends: engage in self-reflective/goal setting activities together.

This is a great activity for rapidly generating new ideas.  Block out the mental critic and throw everything down on paper, no matter how small or how silly the idea seems at the time.  Keep the pen moving and the thoughts flowing.  The point is to brainstorm; there is plenty of time later to edit, but for now the more ideas the better.  Besides, that small or silly idea may plant the seed for a really inspired idea.  I will probably never make toy food (crafting + food), but if I had let the mental critic start censoring at that point I never would have come up with “play Calvin Ball” (creativity + exercise; yes, I love Calvin and Hobbes).  And who knows?  Maybe in ten years my (future, unborn) children will be dying for a plateful of felt spaghetti.

img_0071Challenge 1: Create a clear workspace.

Day 3 Challenge: Touch water.

Even more benefits of buying used

January 26, 2009

The last time I took it upon myself to buy nothing new I was in the process of moving from my parent’s place to an apartment to be closer to work, and I decided, in the spirit of the challenge, that I would only furnish my apartment secondhand. January is far from yard sale season but luckily Craigslist still dredged up a couple moving sales, and I spent an entire Saturday driving up and down the peninsula in search of something, anything to help me set up camp in an unfurnished 10’ by 12’ room.

I was looking for dressers, a desk, bed tables.  I found a small bookshelf and a TV stand instead.  Nothing else was the right price (cheap), the right size (small enough to fit in the back of an Accord), or the right weight (light enough to be manhandled by one person).  Along the way I happened upon an estate sale where most items were out of my price range, but discovered a really great antique-reproduction lamp that I picked up as an impulse purchase.  “Ah, lighting,” I thought.  “That could be useful.”  Total spent that day: $34.

I packed up a couple weeks’ worth of clothing and bedding, borrowed a folding card table, folding chair, floor lamp and foam futon pad from my parents, squeezed the TV stand into the backseat and the bookshelf into the trunk, placed the thrifted lamp as my prized possession in the front seat, and drove off into the heart of San Francisco.

I laugh whenever I think of those first few months in the apartment.  I was living in a drafty converted dining room, folding up the futon during the day for a place to sit.  My clothes were stored in the bookshelf, my crafting supplies in the TV stand; my shoes lined the fireplace and my laptop sat atop a rickety table that was barely large enough to hold the computer.  I stuck books on the ledge in the fireplace, placed photo frames on top of the fireplace.

It was good as a temporary solution, but lacked that feeling of “home” to really settle in.  I still had piles of clutter on the floor that had no permanent storage place.  The card table made it difficult to craft or write, activities I usually used to decompress from work.  A natural homebody, this forced me to spend more time socializing with friends to relieve the stress of work, and as a result grew much closer to new friends than I otherwise would have.  This period of time also illustrated the importance of home as sanctuary in my life.  It was a trade off, but taught me valuable life lessons.

Still.  It was livable.  I hadn’t broken my vow to furnish the apartment second hand.  In May I bought a couple pieces of furniture off my brother’s graduating college friends, picked up more lamps, took the card table home and brought up my sewing machine instead.  I nailed hooks into the walls to hang up clothes and purses.  I borrowed a bookshelf from my brother to eliminate the final piles of clutter on the ground.  My room saw every furniture rearrangement possible.  And so, through improvisation, thrifting, scrounging and borrowing, the entire apartment was furnished secondhand, albeit in stages.

As I learned in furnishing my apartment, the used market can successfully fill your needs.  It requires advance planning, improvisation, patience, and the ability to “get by” as you sift through what’s available to suit your needs.  Part of the fun of thrifting is the thrill of the treasure hunt – you never know what you’ll find, like when I stumbled upon a matching pair to the abovementioned reproduction lamp while looking for a desk.  The flip side of the coin is that it can be quite difficult to find an exact piece of item at any one given moment in time.  This is where it helps to put the word out to family, as it was my brother who eventually tracked down not one but two desks for me (it worked for me to have a writing desk and a crafting desk, and then I really had little space for anything else).

In return, you gain as much from the end results – fuller wallet, helping the environment, providing loose change to the former owner or supporting the charities that benefit from thrift shops – as you do from the process.  Thrifting is not just a treasure hunt but also fosters creativity through improvisation, the ability to look at old materials in new ways.  And whose career hasn’t required that same skill?  Parenting, keeping the magic alive in relationships, handling life’s day-to-day problems, managing a household all benefit from this outlook.  I carry these lessons with me every time I move to a new place, in crafting, in finding new ways to bring friends together.  The benefits of buying used, as with so many other aspects of wellness, carry over into all aspects of life, and continually pop up in surprising places.

Short-term vs. Long-term decision making

January 22, 2009

I have a confession to make. I broke my January challenge and bought a pair of dress pants.

Let me explain. My January travel was for a winter session course involving a gaggle of grad students collaborating with several federal agencies. As a student working with mid-level and senior members of federal, state or local agencies, it is critical to be as professional as possible. This includes wardrobe considerations.

None of the jobs I have ever held have required formal outfits. They haven’t even required business casual because it didn’t fit with the culture of the organizations. There was no interview for a Masters program. As a result, I have very few formal occasion outfits, and the few that I have tend to be a stretch and not properly formal.

Thus, after the first week of the program I could tell I was going to have to step it up a notch to just keep pace with the rest of my classmates. I mean, I still don’t have a suit, but at least I have a decent pair of pants now.

I did plan ahead by purchasing some items during the Thanksgiving and Christmas sales. I scoured the pants racks of several thrift shops, something I never do. I admit, though, that I hate finding pants, particularly dress pants, and through the years I’ve constantly put that one off and mentally prayed that the khakis I have on hand would be sufficient for the occasions that present themselves. Pants rarely fit well (hence various techniques to tweak them), and I’ve never invested enough time in shopping to find the one brand or style that I can passably wear. Frankly, the thought of spending an entire weekend hitting up every single store with business formal clothing is not appealing to me. Hence the procrastination that has stretched out for years.

Which is why, when I was standing in the dressing room in my last-ditch attempts to find something, anything passable, I kept screwing up my face in the mirroring and mumbling, “I HATE pants. Hate, hate, hate.” Unfortunately Ohio in January is too cold to wear anything besides pants, so I was trapped into a purchase that, realistically, will only help in the long run, if only to avoid further night-before-my-flight excursions to the shopping mall to find myself screwing up my face in the mirror, growing desperate and angry over the lack of any decent prospects.

As much as it hurt to falter in my January challenge, I made the conscious decision to do so for two reasons. One, I was running out of time, and when you need something in a hurry, thrift shops and eBay generally don’t cut it. Two, it is more important to maintain a professional appearance than to maintain the sanctity of the challenge. These will be my supervisors and colleagues once I graduate from this program. This January challenge is but one piece of a larger, yearlong challenge to myself.

Although the best life lessons are the ones learned from handling the consequences of our mistakes, in this instance the consequences would have farther-reaching consequences for my career and the relationships built during these two weeks. That is very different from living with a smelly sponge for a month (I was only joking, though it didn’t hurt that I was gone for two weeks in January). Either way, in the future you can be sure I won’t cut it that close in the future. The choice to break the challenge was a matter of balancing priorities, but I don’t anticipate any other big emergencies coming up for the rest of the month. Furthermore, I am already reaping the gains that the challenge intended to produce.

More on that in my next post.

Prioritizing wellness by recalibrating the budget

January 8, 2009

Money affects wellness beyond the scope of “retail therapy” and my January challenge.  After all, our society is built upon money.  It lubricates the cogs of the economic system.  And so it is impossible to consider wellness without considering the impact of money on wellness, and vice versa.

At its core, the most fundamental use for money is to ensure access to basic survival needs.  Anything beyond that is, in the strictest sense, a luxury.  Before we can be picky about what type of food we eat, we must first ensure that we have enough food to make it to tomorrow.  If we cannot meet our basic needs, or if we have other costs that detract from the wellness category, then money stands as an obstacle to achieving greater quality of life.

Thus the second reason for the buy nothing new challenge is to address these larger scale connections between money and wellness.  With no books, magazines, clothing, hobby supplies in the budget, my discretionary spending should go down significantly.  This frees up money to put towards wellness-related activities.  One of the main reasons I never joined the Y or a community pool was that it cost money.  I would constantly spout off to friends about the importance of health and exercise, yet here I was, unwilling to commit to a monthly exercise bill because I felt it cost too much.  And while it’s true that monthly fees can add up, if paying for access to a facility is the difference between exercising regularly and having EXERCISE top the new years resolutions list for four years running – well, that is what I would call money well spent.

That’s the flip side of the money/wellness coin.  Just as a lack of money stands as an obstacle, so too can proper budgeting enable a happier, healthier lifestyle.  If there is a bit left over at the end of the month – if there is room to reshuffle monthly expenses and increase funds in the wellness category – then we have the power to build greater wellness into our lives.  This is not an excuse to buy that shiny new flat screen TV to “put into the exercise room,” only to never use it.  But one or two key investments can make a big difference, like replacing a worn out pair of running shoes with a high quality pair.

One H&M shirt is one yoga lesson.  It is three sessions at the community pool, a student discount play with friends, three 5-pound bags of organic potatoes, an afternoon in the ice skating rink with friends.  In theory I can wear the H&M shirt over and over again, but let’s be honest.  I already have a closet full of shirts, and H&M clothing is not exactly built to last.  On the other hand, an afternoon with friends can be the difference between feeling isolated and depressed and feeling connected to others.  It may be the starting point for a new friendship.  Swimming or yoga is the difference between feeling stressed beyond belief and surfing the endorphin rush towards productivity and a sense of accomplishment.  And three 5-pound bags of organic potatoes?  Well, that certainly makes a ton of mashed potatoes for a potluck, which is a two-for-one, really, since dinner parties bring friends together.  At the very least, potatoes can be spun into all sorts of nutritious meals, plus they store for a long time to boot.

Or one H&M shirt may be the difference between paying off the credit card bill or carrying a balance, between peace of mind and feeling stretched too thin.  It’s true that money in of itself cannot buy happiness.  But it can provide the means to achieving intangibles that are critical to our perception of the quality of daily life, or to the “extras” that increase our sense of well being or our capacity to become the best possible versions of ourselves.

With this January challenge, my hope is to kick start a new year with a shift away from material consumption and towards developing other areas of my life.  I also want to trim the excesses from my budget and put that money towards savings or wellness-related activities and investments such as a pair of running shoes or some yoga DVDs.  Beyond the immediate impact of detoxing from the rampant consumerism of the holidays and holiday sales this challenge should create a lasting recalibration towards a lower consumption lifestyle.  If you constantly eat sweets you become used to a certain level of sugar, and it takes higher and higher levels of sugar to satisfy the same craving.  The counterbalance to this is to eat sweets less frequently.  It’s all about readjusting norms and setting the bar for “normal” a little lower.  It’s the same principle behind the idea that it takes 30 days to form a new habit.  Do anything for long enough and you’ll get used to it; consume less for long enough and you’ll adjust your expectations accordingly.

Detox, recalibration, reorientation, all packaged into one succinct challenge to buy nothing new for 31 days. Now there’s a S.M.A.R.T. foundation.